Why are digital books environmentally friendly?

How environmentally friendly are books? / How environmentally friendly are books? [deu / eng]

Click here for the german version

The search engine of a large online bookseller found 695 books using the search term "Greta Thunberg". Nice to read about the climate activist. But does she like it? After all, when the many pages are printed, CO is also generated2. At the digital book fair in Frankfurt we asked which factors influence the ecological footprint of books and e-book readers. The answer helps readers decide how climate-friendly they can make reading. Carl-Otto Gensch from the Öko-Institut did some calculations.

1. Printed books

Carl-Otto Gensch has calculated from various research work that around eleven kilograms of CO₂ are generated when producing ten books, each with 200 pages, from fresh fiber paper. For books made from recycled paper it is around two kilograms less: around nine kilograms of CO2. For comparison: a car generates around 2.4 kilograms of CO for every liter of gasoline it consumes2.

About half of the energy in book production is used to produce the paper. Even when printing on recycled paper. Because the processing of waste paper is complex and costs energy. Even so, it is clearly better for the environment to use recycled paper than to cut trees for new paper. Many books state which paper was used.

In general, paperbacks are better for the environment than hardcover copies. Making a hard cover costs twice as much resources as the soft cover of a paperback book. The longer and more often a book is used, the more it pays off to print on sturdy, durable paper, especially for children's books. If a kindergarten purchases a cardboard picture book and it goes through many children's hands for years, then it is better to use a copy made of sturdy cardboard because it will last a long time.

The sequence in climate protection is always: avoid, reduce, offset. It is therefore best not to buy new books at all, but to buy used ones at the flea market. Or borrowing books in libraries, from friends or in public bookcases and also passing on your own books. Resource consumption and environmental pollution from book production are then distributed among many users.

2. E-book reader

When reading the above ten books, each with 200 pages, readers generate and use around eight kilograms of CO₂ on an e-book reader. The consumption of resources in the production of e-book readers is similar to that of smartphones. However, e-readers tend to be used longer than smartphones.

For the ecological footprint of e-readers and other electronic reading devices, it is crucial that they are used for as long as possible so that as many printed books, magazines and newspapers as possible are replaced.

Carl-Otto Gensch heads the Products & Material Flows department at the Öko-Institut in Freiburg

additional Information:

A comprehensive - and with a view to the type of data transfer - current study was developed as part of the master's thesis "Environmental Implications of Media Consumption embedded in Digital Ecosystems" and the Trafo 3.0 research project funded by the Federal Ministry of Research within the FONA program.

 

German version

The search engine of a large online bookseller finds 695 books matching the search term “Greta Thunberg”. Reading about her climate activism is wonderful, but does she approve, we wonder? After all, the printing of all those pages is itself a source of CO2 emissions. We mark the Leipzig Book Fair by asking which factors influence the ecological footprint of books and e-book readers. The answer will help readers to decide how climate-friendly they can make their reading. Carl-Otto Gensch of the Oeko-Institut has done a few calculations.

1. Printed books

Carl-Otto Gensch has calculated from various research studies that the production of ten 200-page books from fresh-fiber-based paper causes around eleven kilograms of CO₂ emissions. For books made from recycled paper, it is about two kilograms lower: around nine kilograms of CO2. By way of comparison: a car generates about 2.4 kilograms of CO2 per liter of petrol consumed.

Roughly half of the energy needed for book manufacturing is used for the production of the paper, even for books printed on recycled paper. Because the processing of waste paper is laborious and costs energy. Nevertheless, it is obviously better for the environment to use recycled paper than to cut down trees to produce new paper. Many books contain information about which paper they have been printed on.

Generally speaking, paperbacks are better for the environment than hardback versions. Manufacturing a hard cover takes twice the resources as the soft cover of a paperback book. The longer and more frequently a book will be used, the more cost-effective it is to print on strong, durable paper, especially in the case of children’s books. If a kindergarten purchases a board book and it passes through numerous children’s hands over a number of years, then it is better to choose an edition made of stiff board because these are most durable.

The order of priority in climate protection is always the same: avoid, reduce, offset. That means it is best of all not to buy any new books, but to pick them up used at the flea market. Or to borrow books from libraries, friends, or public book exchanges, and pass on your own books in the same way. The resource consumption and environmental pollution from book production are then spread across many users.

2. E-book readers

Readers opting to read the ten 200-page books mentioned above on an e-book reader are responsible for about eight kilograms of CO₂ resulting from manufacture and usage. The resource consumption in the production of e-book readers is similar to that of smartphones. However, e-readers tend to be used for longer than smartphones.

A critical factor for the ecological footprint of e-readers and other electronic reading devices is to ensure that they have the longest possible usage life, so that they replace as many printed books, magazines and newspapers as possible.

Carl-Otto Gensch is Head of the Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division of the Oeko-Institut, based at its Freiburg location.

Further information:

A comprehensive and - as regards the type of data transfer - up-to-date study has been carried out as part of the Master's thesis “Environmental Implications of Media Consumption embedded in Digital Ecosystems” and in the Trafo 3.0 research project supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under its FONA - Research for Sustainable Development program.